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How to grow a garden -- in one painful lesson

Raising your own veggies may or may not save money, but even the most unskilled of backyard farmers can harvest a bumper crop of satisfaction

September 14, 2008|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

I don't have a green thumb.

When little plants misbehave, their parents threaten to send them to my yard.

But with supermarket prices for produce on the rise, it seemed a good time to try, yet again, to grow a vegetable garden. And I wouldn't be alone. According to the National Garden Assn., hard times seed more gardens.

"The high point we had was in 1975, 1976, when there was a gas crisis and Gerald Ford had his Whip Inflation Now program," said Bruce Butterfield, research director for the association, which has been tracking gardening since 1973. "At that point, 49% of households had them."

Last year and in 2006, the percentage stood at 22%. This year, Butterfield expects a resurgence. "We have gotten information from Burpee and other seed companies that they've been up in sales about 30% this year," Butterfield said. "And in some cases they've sold out."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, September 16, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Gardening: A photo caption in a Business article Sunday about vegetable gardening misspelled the last name of consultant Marta Teegen as Teegan.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 21, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Gardening: A photo caption in a Business section article Sept. 14 about vegetable gardening misspelled the last name of consultant Marta Teegen as Teegan.

Locally, sales at the Armstrong Garden Centers chain are also up 30% this year. But Gary Jones, vice president of marketing, thinks the reasons go beyond the economic.

"It's also about people wanting to be closer to nature, the taste of homegrown vegetables and the whole food-miles thing -- people want to get their food from local sources," Jones said.

True, the carbon footprint from backyard to kitchen is zip. But the bottom-line question is: Can money be saved by gardening at home?

It's quite doable, garden experts insist.

Although not the way we did it down on the lower 40 (more like an 8-foot-by-4-foot raised bed) in a section of my backyard that was so barren it looked as if it should include a car up on blocks.

My partner in this venture was Susan Ortmeyer, a dog-park buddy who also wanted a garden but lives in a condo. We novices managed to overspend, over-water and come up with a garden that was bountiful -- at first -- but produced blah-tasting vegetables.

Still, it's quite possible for first-timers to be successful, given the ample instructional and other resources at hand in Southern California.

And it can be done at a wide range of costs.

Marta Teegen, who owns Homegrown, a Los Angeles-based garden consulting company, will come to your property and install a vegetable garden with your choice of plants. She generally puts in about four 4-by-6-foot raised beds.

The average cost -- $2,000.

At that rate, and because this is Los Angeles, it's no surprise that several of her clients are celebrities (whom she declined to name) with private chefs.

"A big part of the design process is to find out what they eat and how they cook," said Teegen, who also hosts group classes for us mere mortals at a far lower cost.

She designs each garden for the microclimate of its neighborhood and for year-round production.

On the other end of the spectrum, the National Garden Assn. said, the average annual amount spent on an edibles garden in the U.S. is $58.

Of course, Susan and I spent more than that long before putting in our first tomato seedling.

In our defense, first-timers are going to have an initial outlay for tools and other items.

For example, $83 went for redwood boards to make the raised bed, and that was at a bargain rate because the owner of the lumberyard is a friend who cut and delivered the boards for free.

Speaking of free, we should have made more use of the bountiful no-cost information on putting in an edible garden.

Local info is of paramount importance because the Southern California climate is different from that of most of the country. Many of the general books on edible gardens don't zoom in on our territory.

One of the largest local resources is the Cooperative Extension for Los Angeles County, a division of the University of California. The program's website has so much information for gardeners that sorting through it can be a bit difficult.

There's month-by-month gardening tips specific to the area and a guide for growing the most popular of garden vegetables -- the tomato.

"People who have never grown anything will want to grow a tomato," said Yvonne Savio, manager of the community gardens program at the extension. "The tomato is the perfect entry plant, and then they can branch out."

The extension's online brochure, "Growing Tomatoes in Your Garden," recommends digging the soil to at least a foot and then adding about 2 pounds of fertilizer per 100 square feet of planting area.

Savio said her formula was to dig the garden area about a shovel deep, then add 2 inches of compost and another 2 inches of manure on top. (She recommends the organic non-sludge manure available at nurseries). Then, mix the dirt and amendments all together.

She likes using raised beds when possible. "It's one of the best ways because you can corral your amendments," she said.

Savio uses soaker hoses for watering, with a substantial layer of mulch on top of the hoses to preserve water and keep down weeds. After her plants are established she waters only once every two weeks.

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